By Lianne Kolirin
Weddings, funerals and other “life cycle ceremonies” will all be permitted in a limited capacity from Saturday (July 4), under updated government guidance on places of worship.
Churches and other places of worship in England were allowed to reopen for private prayer on June 15. Yet while this has been acted upon by the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian denominations, other religions have held back due to the congregational nature of their practices.
Under the new regulations, up to 30 people will be allowed to gather for weddings, funerals and other life cycle ceremonies such as christenings and bar mitzvahs.
The guidelines are largely advisory with each place of worship expected to undertake risk assessments and adapt their facilities and provisions to their own needs. Social distancing and hand washing are essential, but the question of face coverings has been left to places of worship to decide upon.
The update states: “Each individual place of worship is strongly advised to apply this guidance with reference to its own specific circumstances, including its size and type of activities, how it is organised, operated, managed and regulated.
“Venue managers of places of worship will have discretion over when they consider it safe to open and should decide to remain closed if they are not able to safely adhere to the guidelines outlined below.”
Services should be adapted “to ensure the safety of those present and minimise spread of infection”. Ceremonies and services should be “concluded in the shortest reasonable time”, with facilities reconfigured to allow for maximum social distancing.
Anyone displaying symptoms should stay away, as should those living with someone who is self isolating. Members of the community who are vulnerable or over 70 should stay at home as much as possible, which is why the government has recommended the continuation of streamed services.
Shared items, such as religious texts, prayer mats and service sheets, are to be avoided and “individuals should be prevented from touching or kissing objects that are handled communally”.
Single use items should be used instead and worshippers should not touch other people’s property, such as shoes which are removed in some places of worship.
Where congregants do not have their own religious books, places of worship should keep a selection of clean books for use which must afterwards be quarantined for 48 hours.
Food and drink is also addressed. The government states: “Where food or drink (‘consumables’) are essential to the act of worship, they can be used, however the sharing of food should be avoided, as should the use of communal vessels.
“If it is necessary to handle consumables as a part of a faith practice, those giving and receiving food items should wash their hands thoroughly before and after consumption, or wear gloves.”
Singing, chanting and raised voices should be avoided “because of the potential for increased risk of transmission from aerosol and droplets”. Musical instruments that are blown into are also out, it states.
Musical recordings should be used as a substitute where possible, but where essential to the act of worship “one individual only should be permitted to sing or chant, and the use of plexi-glass screens should be considered to protect worshippers from them”, say the guidelines.
Other instruments, such as organs, are allowed but must be thoroughly cleaned before and after use.
Ritual washing and ablutions should be done at home, ahead of attending the place of worship. Services that require charitable cash donations are not recommended, but if absolutely necessary a receptacle should be set in one place and not passed around.
Faith leaders have today welcomed the guidance, and are now focusing on how best to put it into practice within their communities.
A spokesman for the Catholic Church said they welcomed the guidelines which are being carefully studied.
Steven Wilson, United Synagogue:
The United Synagogue has told its members that it remains “committed to taking a cautious and steady approach to reopening”, with each synagogue deciding on what is right for its members. Its chief executive Steven Wilson said:”We are delighted that the government has given us the green light to re-open our synagogues safely from July 4. Measures such as strict social distancing, hand sanitising, compulsory face coverings and a booking system will all be in place to keep each other safe, but nevertheless, we are thrilled to be able to open our doors again. Each of our communities will be restarting services at its own pace depending on the needs of their members and we will support each community every step of the way. It has been extremely painful for us – although the right thing to do – to keep our synagogues closed and we are looking forward to welcoming members back soon.”
Harmeet Singh Gill, General Secretary, Sri Guru Singh Sabha Southall:
“We welcome the Government’s guidance. The latest measures are practical and sensible steps, which will enable us to be able to resume normal services in Gurdwaras safely. Gurdwaras have been working with leading epidemiologists and experts to implement best practices tailored for us. Gurdwaras are now one of the safest places the public can visit. From the 4th of July, Gurdwaras will be able to resume Kirtan (devotional music) , which is a fundamental part of our worship, as well as hold weddings which will bring immense relief to many families. The pandemic has placed immense strain on the physical and mental wellbeing of our country. This return to normality, albeit with stringent social distancing measures in place, is a positive step.”
Bhai Amrik Singh, Chair of the Sikh Federation (UK) welcomed the guidance and said that all Gurdwaras will become fully operational from 4 July. The only limitation will be to control and safely manage numbers in attendance, especially when there are important events in the Sikh calendar. He said: “The Communities Secretary has taken on board the concerns we have raised with him in writing and recognised the need not to interfere in religious practices, such as Kirtan, distribution of Karah Parshad to the Sangat (congregation) and the unique Sikh concept of Guru Ka Langar (free food kitchen). Many Gurdwaras have rightly continued these practices despite the government guidance. Our only remaining concern is the guidance states marriage ceremonies should have no more than 30 people in attendance. We have spoken to those running many Gurdwaras that have confirmed it is illogical to limit numbers to 30 for an Anand Karaj where people from the same family will take part. They will instead apply the same capacity considerations as other Sikh religious services with reference to their own specific circumstances, including size and safety considerations.”
Harun Khan, Secretary General of the MCB, said:
“It is up to each individual mosque to decide on whether they wish to re-open, and when. With Muslims able to go back to the mosque for congregational worship from this weekend, the publication of the UK Government’s guidance as to how to do this safely is welcome. Mosques must not feel rushed into re-opening, but should only take this step when they feel it is safe to do so within their individual context. The MCB’s 9-step guide to re-opening has practical advice specifically for mosques on this. It is imperative that communities take all practical precautions, from members not attending if they are high risk, to mosque leaders not re-opening until they are able to put all the necessary measures to do this safely in place. With the threat of a second wave ever-present, we must continue to do all we can to ensure the preservation of life is our priority.”
Rajnish Kashyap, General Secretary/Director, Hindu Council UK (HCUK)
“The majority of Hindu temples are planning to reopen from 4 July, so it is good news that devotees will be able come again for Aarti and prayers, even if keeping a social distance. Understandably, people will be cautious and temples will not be returning to normal soon. Temples are continuing to follow government guidelines and implementing Covid-19 safety procedures carefully to enable them to prepare to open the temples when it is safe and practical to do so. There will still be restrictions and we must all do everything we can to limit the spread of the virus to protect each other, especially the most vulnerable. During the lockdown period many temples started the online Aarti (ceremony of prayer and lights) and this will continue.”